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While birds may be the most iconic and familiar aviators, there exists a lesser-known yet equally remarkable group of creatures, those with the extraordinary ability to glide. These beings come from various corners of the animal kingdom, each employing their unique adaptations to glide effortlessly through the air.
In this article, we will explore the diverse range of gliding animal species, investigate their adaptations, and uncover the science behind their unique way of flying.
What are Gliding Animals?
While birds use powered flight to glide, some animals rely on unpowered gliding, such as parachuting or free-falling. They typically begin from a high vantage point and harness aerodynamics to navigate to their next spot. All gliding animals share the ability to expand their bodies to increase aerodynamic surface area, utilizing forces like the wind for aerial locomotion.
It’s thought that the ability to glide is an evolutionary trait, and scientists think that there were several reasons for this. One theory suggests that animals developed the ability to glide as a way of exploring more of a forest as opposed to just the tree that they inhabit. In some research, it has been noted that, while most gliding animals had small bodies to make them more aerodynamic, some species of flying dragons actually evolved larger bodies. However, this inhibits their gliding abilities, so they’ve had to adapt other traits, such as being able to flatten themselves to blend in with the tree.
This is because gliding also serves as a way of escaping predators, but it’s also used when searching for food and allows the animal to cover a wider area.
Interestingly, the evolution of gliding has told us a lot about the evolution of the ear. Bear with me as I realize this might sound irrelevant, but look at this extinct species of Jurassic mouse, the first mammal known to have had a middle ear. Not only this but it tells us that, even back then, there were gliders in arboreal environments.
We can see that the evolution of gliding took place owing to a need to travel more efficiently from tree to tree. Climbing exerts a lot of energy, but these small animals can simply glide and save energy in the process. This is even more important since many species of gliding animals rely on low energy foods such as fruits, berries, and nectar.
When gliding animals take that first leap to get them into the air, they don’t have wings or any other body parts that allow them to control their flight. However, with their widened bodies and gliding membrane, they are able to control their movements as they descend.
Mammals are among some of the most common gliding animals; there are around 60 species in total, and many of these are types of flying squirrels. They are able to glide thanks to a body part called the patagium, which is similar to how bats glide, only not as efficient.
1. Sugar Glider (Petaurus Breviceps)
Sugar gliders have become a popular exotic pet species but they’ve lived in the wild for more than 18 million years. They’re found in New Guinea and parts of north and east Australia in a variety of different forest types. These are small marsupials that have a distinct dark line running down the back and have a gray-to-blue coloration.
The sugar glider has a special gliding membrane, which is very similar to that of the flying squirrel. This membrane extends from the fore foot to the hind foot on either side of the body, and the animal simply has to spread its limbs to activate it.
Once in the air, a sugar glider can glide for up to 148 feet (45 meters), and it does so to move between trees, escaping threats and searching for food. They live in very tight-knit groups of around 7, and have glands in their mouths, anuses, and extremities to mark their territory. During periods of cold weather, the group will huddle together and enter a state of torpor.
2. Southern Greater Glider (Petauroides Volans)
The southern greater glider is found in the eucalyptus forests of eastern Australia. The largest of all gliding possum species, the southern greater glider has a patagium that extends from the elbow to the ankle. This allows them to glide up to 328 feet (100 meters).
When they move through the air, their long tails act as a rudder, allowing them to control their flight path. When they’re not gliding, southern greater gliders will use their patagium to wrap around their bodies to keep warm. Unlike sugar gliders, they cannot huddle as they are largely solitary animals.
3. Sunda Flying Lemur (Galeopterus variegatus)
Contrary to its name, the Sunda flying lemur is not actually a lemur. Nor does it fly. Instead, it uses its furred patagium to glide through the air. The patagium spans from the neck down to the fingers and toes, extending along the entire length of the limbs.
Sunda flying lemurs have large forward facing eyes, no whiskers, and a blunt snout. Their fur can range in color but is usually mottled and, on the underside, is typically much paler.
Once in flight, these mammals can glide for up to 656 feet (200 meters) between the trees in search of food. Female Sunda flying lemurs will use small pouches in their patagium to shelter their young when in the trees, and they can be found in the tropical forests of Indochina and Sundaland.
4. Indian Giant Flying Squirrel (Petaurista philippensis)
Preferring a deciduous forest environment, the Indian giant flying squirrel is common all over southeast Asia. However, despite its name, its distribution in India is a little patchy. These gliding mammals are a species of rodent belonging to the Scuiridae family, have dark dur, and can grow up to 17 inches (43 cm) with a tail that’s 19.7 inches (50 cm) in length, making them one of the larger species of flying mammals.
Indian giant flying squirrels have a patagium that extends from the wrists to the ankles and this allows them to glide effortlessly between the trees. While they may be able to glide long distances, they typically only travel short distances to conserve energy and make use of larger landing surfaces.
They feed on lichens, flowers, bark, and young leaves as well as fruit, where it is available. Solitary and nocturnal, these animals may live up to 11 years in the wild but there is no official documentation on this.
5. Philippine Flying Lemur (Cynocephalus volans)
Lemurs are endemic to Madagascar, so it’ll come as no surprise that this mammal, which is found in the Philippines, is not actually a lemur. It is in the same family as the Sunda flying lemur, and these are the only two species within said family.
Philippine flying lemurs inhabit rainforests as well as coconut plantations and have dark fur, and large eyes, and grow to around the size of a cat.
The patagium of the Philippine flying lemur begins at the fingers and toes and connects to the neck. They’ll climb to the highest point of the tree before launching themselves down in search of food, which they do at dusk and dawn, being crepuscular. They can cover a good amount of ground, being able to glide for up to 656 feet (200 meters) per flight.
6. Red Giant Flying Squirrel (Petaurista petaurista)
The red giant flying squirrel is mainly found in forested areas of Pakistan. However, it’s also common in Java, Afghanistan, and as far east as China. These are among the largest species of flying squirrel and can measure up to 21.7 inches (55 cm) with a tail that can grow as long as 24.8 inches (63 cm). This long tail ensures that the squirrel remains stable as it glides.
While they can be found nesting in tree cavities, they also use their large patagium to glide from tree to tree. Their gliding membranes are covered in long, dense, red fur and contain muscles that they can relax and contract to guide the direction of their flight.
Red giant flying squirrels can glide for around 246 feet (75 meters) at a time, but they are also extremely adept climbers, making it easy for them to forage for pine cones, young leaves, and fruits.
7. Beecroft’s Flying Squirrel (Anomalurus beecrofti)
Medium to large in size with rounded ears, a sharp muzzle, and silver/gray coloration, the Beecroft’s flying squirrel can be found in Western and Central Africa. It prefers a tropical or subtropical forest habitat where it goes in search of leaves and fruits as well as nuts, which it cracks open with its strong jaws.
The Beecroft’s flying squirrel has a gliding membrane that extends from the hind legs to the forelegs and while covered in hair on the outside, is sparsely furred on the inside.
During the day, these squirrels nest in the higher parts of the trees but use their gliding abilities to move lower down at dusk to look for food. They have scaly tails that are thought to slow them down as they come in to land.
8. Western Woolly Flying Squirrel (Eupetaurus cinereus)
Out of the flying squirrels, the western wooly flying squirrel is the least studied. In fact, this mysterious creature is one of the rarest mammals in the world, and we don’t know very much about it at all.
So rare are these flying squirrels that the first confirmed specimen wasn’t recorded until 2022 in Bhutan, although we do know that they are found in a few specific parts of the Himalayas. We also know that this is one of the largest gliding animals in the world.
Western wooly flying squirrels prefer coniferous forests at high elevations and despite their size, are thought to glide as effectively as smaller species.
9. Feathertail Glider (Acrobates Pygmaeus)
Sometimes called the pygmy glider or the flying mouse, the feathertail glider is the smallest known species of gliding mammal in the world. It typically grows no larger than 3.1 inches (8 cm), but thanks to its patagium that stretches from the fore to the hind legs, it can travel up to 82 feet (25 meters) through the air.
These tiny creatures also have a somewhat prehensile tail, which allows them to grip onto small branches and twigs. However, the patagium is covered in long hairs which does affect its efficiency. As you can guess from its name, the feathertail glider has a feathered tail created by two rows of stiff hairs on either side.
Moving between the trees, these small mammals can go in search of pollen and nectar, which they take using their long, brush-like tongues.
10. Squirrel Glider (Petaurus Norfolcensis)
While the squirrel glider does look very similar in appearance to the sugar glider, you can tell them apart since the latter is much smaller. They have broad, bushy tails, and their coloration can vary from gray to brown, but they have a dark stripe running along the length of the back.
Squirrel gliders are found along the eastern and south eastern coasts of Australia, where they inhabit dry and coastal forests. They have a patagium that extends from the ankle to the forefoot, which enables them to fly up to 328 feet (100 meters) when taking advantage of a downward pull. But even during a flat flight, they may be able to glide for up to 164 feet (50 meters).
11. Mahogany Glider (Petaurus gracilis)
The mahogany glider has a very limited range around the Queensland area of Australia. They are found in eucalyptus forests, but owing to habitat fragmentation, they’re now listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Mahogany gliders have short fur and a similar coloration and markings to the sugar glider. However, they are much larger, so they are easy to distinguish. They live in monogamous pairs and are nocturnal animals that feed on eucalyptus sap, acacia seeds, mistletoe, and other plants.
In terms of gliding, there is a fold of skin between the fore and hind legs, which they extend when moving through the air. This enables them to fly for up to 98 feet (30 meters) at a time.
12. Yellow Bellied Glider (Petaurus Australis)
With a long bushy tail that grows up to 18.9 inches (48 cm) and a body length of around 11.8 inches (30 cm), yellow bellied gliders are one of the larger species of gliding mammals. They have silky fur and being marsupials, females have a double pouch that is split by a septum. Their tails are prehensile and allow them to hold onto branches as they move around.
But climbing isn’t their only method of transportation. As their name suggests, they’re also capable of gliding thanks to a patagium between the wrists and ankles. Amazingly, this feature enables them to fly for up to 492 feet (150 meters) at a time!
During the day, these animals hide out in holes in trees in small groups. They have a very distinct call and it’s said you can hear it from up to 1,640 feet (500 meters) away!
Gliding Reptiles & Amphibians
It’s not just mammals that have evolved an ability to glide, there are also many species of amphibians and reptiles that have this amazing ability.
1. Common Flying Dragon (Draco volans)
The common flying dragon, sometimes called the Draco lizard, is a small species no bigger than your cell phone. Still with its colorful gliding membrane, it’s able to fly up to 197 feet (60 meters). Under the chin, the common flying dragon has an extendable skin flap that it uses as a rudder for stability and a long tail to guide its flight path.
Common flying dragons are found in the tropical forests of India and South Asia, where they use their gliding ability to hunt for insects in the trees.
The patagium of the common flying dragon is not only used for flight, but because of its bright colors, it’s also used in mating displays and as a warning to predators.
2. Wallace’s Flying Frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus)
Wallace’s flying frog is an amphibian species native to Borneo and Malaysia where it inhabits moist tropical forests. These arboreal frogs grow to around 0.8 inches (2 cm) and have large eyes with a membrane behind the eyes that acts in the same way as an eardrum.
Like most frog species, Wallace’s flying frog has webbed feet but instead of using them for swimming, it jumps from trees to escape predators, using its foot webbing as a parachute. While these frogs don’t glide as efficiently as other species, they can travel up to 164 feet (50 meters) in a single jump.
3. Paradise Tree Snake (Chrysopelea paradisi)
The paradise tree snake has brightly colored flower-like scales and can grow up to 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) in length. Preying on lizards and frogs, these snakes can glide between trees by flattening their bodies.
Unlike other gliding animals, paradise tree snakes do not have any special body parts that help them stay aloft. Instead, by flattening their rib cages and taking a huge leap, they can ‘fly’ for up to 328 feet (100 meters). In order to achieve accuracy, they use an undulating movement whilst in flight.
It might sound scary to have a snake flying towards you, but they’re relatively harmless to humans and are found only in South Asia and Indonesia.
4. Sulawesi Lined Gliding Lizard (Draco spilonotus)
The Sulawesi lined gliding lizard is, as its name suggests, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi where it can be found in various forested areas.
Males have a brightly colored yellow gliding membrane with brown lines, which is where the lizard takes its name. These lizards are small species, but some may grow to around 3.3 feet (1 meter) in length when you include their long, thin tails.
They use their gliding abilities to search for food in nearby trees, and not only are they great flyers, but they’re also masters of disguise with an ability to camouflage to protect them from predators.
5. Gliding Gecko (Ptychozoon kuhli)
Native to Southeast Asia, the gliding gecko, sometimes called the flying gecko, has several features that give it the gift of ‘flight.’ For starters, it has flaps on either side of its body as well as webbed feet. Moreover, these geckos have flattened tails, which aid it in gliding.
Gliding geckos are nocturnal animals whose coloration can vary greatly depending on the local substrate. This means they are excellent at camouflage and they’re also gifted with tiny hairs on their feet which allow them to stick to almost any surface!
6. Gliding Tree Frog (Agalychnis spurrelli)
The gliding tree frog is found in parts of South America, including Panama, Costa Rica, and Colombia. They typically grow up to 2.5 inches (6.4 cm), with females being slightly larger than males, and they’re found in tropical lowland forests.
Gliding tree frogs are pretty elusive, and these nocturnal creatures are rarely spotted. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that they were confirmed to be living in Costa Rica. With large red eyes and a prominent yellow belly, they’re easy to identify.
Where gliding is concerned, they have webbed feet and will jump from trees, spreading their arms and legs to act as parachutes. They’ll travel at a 45 degree angle for much of the flight and can move up to 164 feet (50 meters).
7. Borneo Flying Frog (Rhacophorus borneensis)
The Borneo flying frog can be found in the Maliau Basin Conservation reserve and owing to the protected status of the area, as well as its inaccessibility, it’s been difficult to study the species in any great detail.
However, we know that the Borneo flying frog grows to around 2 inches (5 cm) and has a beautiful green coloration with white lips, yellow underbelly and blue markings on the foot webbings. As a result of this, it is known as one of the prettiest frogs in the region.
Using its heavily webbed feet, the Borneo flying frog is able to glide at a 45 degree angle between trees. However, it usually remains high up in the canopy and only comes down when it’s time to breed.
8. Golden Tree Snake (Chrysopelea ornata)
The golden tree snake is found across south and southeast Asia, where it lives in forested areas. Owing to its beautiful cross hatched markings, it has become a popular choice for exotic pet owners. It’s a diurnal species that preys on lizards, bats, and sometimes small birds and their eggs.
Golden tree snakes have scales that allow them to grip on surfaces, meaning they’re often seen scaling , rocks, and coconut trees. However, this is a timid species and it is not dangerous to humans.
Where gliding is concerned, the golden tree snake contracts its ventral surface to create a v shape after jumping from a high point. It’s thought that they do this for a couple of reasons, including escaping predators, hunting, and for moving between trees more quickly.
Gliding Fish & Mollusks
There are several species of flying fish and usually they’re able to fly up to 164 feet (50 meters). However, some have special adaptations that allow them to move over distances up to 1,312 feet (400 meters)!
1. Japanese Flying Squid (Todarodes pacificus)
While its name may suggest that the flying squid is native to Japan, this species is actually also found along the coasts of China and Russia. They tend to live closer to the surface, with a maximum depth of around 1,640 feet (500 meters).
Japanese flying squids only live for around a year in the wild and grow up to around 19.7 inches (50 cm). With an ability to fly through the air at up to 36 feet (11 meters) per second, they’re super speedy!
Thes squids use jet propulsion under the water, pushing water out of its mantle and through its siphon. This allows it to either move rapidly through the water or to fly above the surface. Once out of the water, the squid will spread its limbs for improved aerodynamics which enables it to get away from predators.
2. Flying Fish (Exocoetidae)
There are around 70 species of flying fish and they’re found in warm oceans all over the planet. Not only are they adept at flying out of the water, but their streamlined bodies also enable them to move through the water at exceptional speeds.
Flying fish shoot out of the water thanks to their torpedo shaped bodies and also have wide tails that provide acceleration. They’ll break the surface and use their tails to speed up before extending their pectoral fins and lifting into the air. There are even some species with another set of ‘wings’ and these are able to reach speeds of up to 60 mph (97 km/h) and cover distances of more than 1,968 feet (600 meters)!
While a lot of animals use their gliding abilities to hunt, it’s thought that flying fish have developed this ability as a way of effectively escaping predators.
Gliding Insects & Arachnids
Enter into the world of mini beasts, and we find several insects and arachnids that are capable of flight. Some of them do it in incredibly interesting ways, such as ballooning.
1. Gliding Ants (Cephalotes spp.)
Found in rainforest environments, there are several species of gliding ants, including the Cephalotes atratus and the Cephalotes rohweri. The former, commonly known as the giant turtle ant is black in color and can grow up to 0.6 inches (1.5 cm) in length. They’re an arboreal species found in parts of South America, but they will descend to the ground in search of food.
They do this by jumping from the trees and using a controlled gliding descent to the ground. However, they’re also known to make a quick descent to another tree when they need to escape a predator.
While it doesn’t appear that these ants have any special adaptations to control their gliding, scientists have noted that removing the hind legs seems to limit their ability to control the flight path.
2. Gliding Spiders (Selenops spp.)
To many people, the idea of a spider hurtling towards them through the air is the stuff of nightmares. Gliding Spiders (Selenops spp.) possess a remarkable ability to glide through the air, using this unique skill for transportation, efficiently moving between trees. They also employ this ability as an escape mechanism when facing threats from predators, such as certain ant species. In studies, these spiders were dropped from the canopy and demonstrated their ability to target a location effectively and land on it.
These spiders are adept at using their forelegs to steer and change direction during a glide, enabling them to navigate and cover significant distances while airborne. Gliding spiders are found in arid regions across the world, including areas in South Africa, Australia, and various parts of the Americas.